Car Parks, ICE, and Kafka


Car Parks, ICE, and Kafka

Car parks, or garages as you guys call them, are structures for storing motor vehicles. Long experience suggests that it is easy to build them badly, but much harder to build them well, either for functional or structural design. For me, the top trump was a project that I became involved in, when it was partially built. The ramp was so badly designed that it would not be possible to turn even a Mini on to the deck! The inevitable outcome: knock it down and start again.

Back in the 70s, our Institution of Structural Engineers published a “how to design and build a car park” guide. This has been updated three times and I was honored to be asked to contribute to the last edition back in 2011. Now the clock has ticked round, a new update is planned, and I have been asked to contribute again.

That has set me thinking, just what has changed since 2011, and what is likely to change in the next decade? In many countries, but not, perhaps, America, steel frame construction is increasingly the norm. Easier and quicker to build than concrete and, at the end of life, you unscrew it, take it to the smelter and turn it into something else.

I am not an engineer, so I find other things are more interesting. Policy here is to end ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) sales by 2030, meaning that by 2040 the vehicle fleet will be electric. That is a BIG THING. For over a century car parks have been vehicle stores, now they are going to have to also be refuelling facilities. Last month I blithely announced that car parks would not be a sea of chargers. What do I know? Last week a charger provider told me that already they are being asked to respond to requests for a 100 percent coverage in new car parks! The data suggests that the chargers won’t be used most of the time but: the customer is always right!

Vehicles are also going to affect the structures differently. No CO2, but EVs are heavier and that has implications for both deck loading and surface wear on the ramps and driveways. Another big issue that designers will have to consider is fire safety. We thought that we had pretty much got fire risk from ICE cars sussed. That is until a nearly new car park in Merseyside caught fire and burnt out in almost no time in 2017. Imagine now a thermal runaway in a lithium battery. Scary. 

Then we have the deployment of autonomous vehicles. If the driver is on board, it’s probably not much change, fewer paint scrapes on the ramps, maybe. But what about totally self-parking? The humans decant outside, and the car drives off and parks itself in a structure somewhere. For decades, bays have been getting bigger so that doors can be easily opened by their overweight human cargo. Without humans, the bay only needs to be an inch or two wider than the car. This could reduce the size of the structure by 10 percent or more.

Robotic car parks are rare here and the design guidance has not robots at all. The market sometimes feels like the wild west, few rules and more than a few snake-oil salesmen. Perhaps it is past time that someone independent took a step back from the hype and came up with some basic guidance on what a buyer should expect and require from a robot.

The trouble with writing this column is that the lapse between me writing and you reading means that I am always an inch away from falling flat on my face. Take Brexit: I wrote that there were dire predictions of a total breakdown in cross channel freight, with 7,000 or more lorries queueing to cross between England and France. Not unreasonably, John asked, “did this actually happen?” Well, the answer is Yes and No. 

In anticipation of total chaos in the opening days of 2021, many logistics companies brought forward deliveries and stockpiled goods, meaning that lorry flow through the ports was going to be lower than normal at the start of January anyway. But, just to shake things up, the perfidious French decided to close their borders to travelers from the UK just a few days before Christmas because of Covid-19. So, with just a few hours’ notice all the trucks heading to the channel crossings stopped. That includes trucks carrying highly perishable loads like Scottish Salmon; and drivers from all over Europe who were trying to get home for Christmas. 

The result was absolute chaos. In Kent, something approaching 17 miles of the M20 motorway was turned into a lorry park. This was nowhere near enough and the government used Manston Airport in North Kent to store several thousand more. There were no sanitary provisions and many of the drivers had no food, no access to food, and often little or no money. Eventually, the French backed down and are allowing truckers to cross with a negative Covid-19 test. Just how many vehicles were queued is a matter of some debate, but possibly up to 10,000 vehicles. We do know that by the start of the year some 15,000 Covid tests had been administered.

At the time of writing, freight movements through Dover are running at about one third of normal levels at about 2,500 vehicles per day. The government are saying that everything is tickety-boo with only about 1 percent of vehicles being turned away. The Road Haulage industry say that the actual figure is about 20 percent, and the French have just tightened up on the rules for Covid testing. It seems, however, that up to two thirds of the vehicles exiting Britain are empty. European businesses are not willing to either deal with Britain’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy, or risk vehicles getting stuck here because the paperwork is just too easy to get wrong. So, if we want their cheese then we have to send a vehicle to collect it, doubling transport costs

Brexit and the ports apart, our poor Transport Minister is not having a good year.

Having set up a trial of electric scooters, he is already pushing for their acceptance. He hasn’t been helped by the Metropolitan Police declaring them dangerous and not fit for purpose.

He wants to allow autonomous vehicles to be used on motorways where there would be no cross or opposing flow. Vehicle insurers are having an attack of the vapors at the thought.

Motorways had a continuous nearside lane for vehicles that break down. Traffic continued to grow, and someone suggested using this “hard shoulder” for moving traffic. The first trial only used the hard shoulder as a running lane at peak times and created an additional layby about every kilometer. It worked fine and was safe. So, they rolled out the scheme, but on the cheap. The hard shoulder became a permanent running lane, and, to save money, the refuge spacing is nearer three kilometers. The result: carnage. The Police say it’s dangerous, Parliament says it’s dangerous, the motoring organizations says it’s dangerous, the coroners say it’s dangerous and the minister continues to ignore everyone, because he can.

Article contributed by:
Peter Guest
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